We’re talking about war this month – excluding my Day of the Dead post. Today, we’re going to talk about war in literature. I know I can a little cynical with a lot of the literature that is out there that glorify war – so I apologize in advance if that grates on anyone’s nerves.
War in literature, like most literary pieces, started many years ago. You know when wars were more common and the mortality rate was sky high. Honestly, you were lucky to see it past your twenties.
There are hieroglyphs, poems and stories – both oral and written – fact and fiction. That document battles with the elements and between civilizations. Most of these wars even come with reasons as to why they were started and they all usually come with some form of worship to those who fallen during the battles. There were always punishments for those who deserted or dissented against the need for war.
As a result, we have a lot of material to go over in the name of war. For my purposes, I’m going to focus more on the creative works – with a bit of philosophy thrown in here and there. We’re going to look at some fact thrown in with the fiction as well.
The Glory of War
Within literature there have been two ways that war is looked at. One of them is thinking that war was/is a noble profession for one to have. It’s been promoted enough that a lot of young men thought that they would come home heroes and triumphant from the first world war.
A huge reason for the high enrollment in the army at that time was in part by this poem (see video below) by Lord Alfred Tennyson titled “Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1854.
This poem was written to honor those who died in the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Six hundred people died in what was essentially a trap laid for them. Not a single person out of that brigade survived. They in effect blindly followed their orders and died for their country. Tennyson praises them for dying for their country. For being brave enough to go into a battle which they were never going to win. The poem helped the English government at the time recruit more young men to their war so they too could die.
This type of hero worship for those who go into battle didn’t just end with poets and fiction/non-fiction writers. It also was taking place in the propaganda to get men and women to enlist.
There’s a lot of implying that your manhood rested on your ability and willingness to fight and defend your country. There is a lot of shame in getting someone to fight a war that they do not necessarily want to fight. You’re essentially damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Plus when you finally walk onto the battlefield and find out how horrible it really is – you’re going to wish you stayed at home or that you even survive the next few minutes. You’re watching friends die, you’re killing people and it’s accepted and even praised when your entire life you’ve been told that taking another’s life is a sin.
While I was researching for a presentation for a poetry class in university, I found out that the British government, during World War I, would actually screen the letters going to family and loved ones from the soldiers from the front lines. They wanted to keep moral up at home and wanted to make sure people were still enlisting. So, they had a template for the soldiers to follow when writing their letters to home. Obviously, some soldiers figured out a way around this and came up with a code that their families could decipher for the truth. On top of that, a lot of the letters we have in archives are written with a lot of sincerity and the subject matter shouldn’t be read as a cover up of what is going on. there were times when the governments didn’t need to keep moral up.
(I also apologize, but I could not find the article detailing this in my notes – my laptop crashed. I will try to find it and post it as it was really interesting.)
We still see war hero worship in today’s society – I’m looking at you America. I don’t think I can count the number of war centered movies and TV shows that have come out in the past year featuring soldiers of any and all types. Most of them are coming out of the USA where a lot of the country’s identity is wrapped up in their wartime prowess and strength. Plus they want to make war look appealing so they can still be a militarily elite country.
Now, with all of that said. Propaganda and glorifying war is not always a bad thing. I do find the people who enlist and fight are brave and strong. I would never be able to do what they do and face what they face. Fighting for what’s right and to champion those who cannot fight for themselves is a noble thing to do. Without those men and women who fought against Hitler, we would be looking at a drastically different world today.
The Horrors of War
I’ve touched on this in the last section a bit. I can only imagine what it is like to lose a limb in combat or to watch a friend die in front of you or in your arms. I have also never killed a person before. I’ve never had to fear that I will never see the sun rise again as bullets whiz by my head and bombs explode around me.
I’m never going to be able to subscribe that excess of feeling or complete numbness as I go about my job. I will never have to deal with the aftermath of being done with war and suffer through PTSD. However, i can turn you to some literature that can help you understand it a little bit better.
He fought in World War I for the British Army. He, unfortunately, died when he was 25 during combat in November 1918 about a week before the Armistice. Owen suffered from PTSD and was a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh in 1917. While he was there he wrote about the war and his disillusionment with it at the urging of Siegfried Sassoon – friend, mentor and fellow soldier. He only published five poems while he was alive, but the rest were published posthumously.
If you’d like to know more about Wilfred Owen you can find that out here.
Here are some links to his poems (these are his most famous):
Charles Yale Harrison
Harrison was born in the United States in Philadelphia, but spent his childhood and teen years growing up in Montreal, Canada. He even fought for Canada in World War I. He enlisted in 1917 and was sent off to Europe. Initially he was a part of a reserve battalion, but Harrison was transferred to the Royal Montreal Regiment and subsequently sent to the Western Front. On 8 August 1918, during the first day of the Battle of Amiens, he was wounded and spent the remainder of the war recovering from his injuries. Once he came back, he dabbled in theater for a while and then moved back to the USA and worked on his novels and other interests.
He is most famous for his novel Generals Die in Bed (1930). This novel follows an unnamed soldier from Canada who is sent to fight on the front in the First World War and drew upon his own experiences while fighting. Harrison takes the idealism and bonds forged during wartime and shatters them – leaving the readers with the futility of war.
It’s a phenomenal read. Seriously, I balled my eyes out and it really makes you question why our world goes to war.
How to Write War Stories
Here are my tips to writing a war story:
- Know your time period really well. If you’re going to write about WWII, know why people were fighting, what the social issues were, what people are saying about the war. What the clothing is like. People will know what is expected for this time period and they will call you out if you haven’t done you research for this.
- Know how to use the weapons during the time period you’re writing under. Nothing is worse than not knowing what weapons are used in what time period or if your character doesn’t know how to use them properly.
- Know the conditions. What are fighting conditions like? Are they in a fox hole, a trench, etc.? What are the challenges or advantages to this style of fighting.
- Know how the military system works. So, know what happens in the recruitment center, during training, what happens on the field. How do soldiers remain fit and alert.
- Know your chain of command. It’s going to be really weird having a private bossing around a general. Just make sure you follow the chain of command and then reinforce when someone steps out of it.
- What supports do soldiers have in and out of the war.? Is there a field medical team right there to help the fallen and injured? Do we have air or naval support? What’s waiting for them back home – PTSD help?
- Talk to someone who has been through a war. They’re going to be able to help you fill in the gaps that your research can’t do. Like what happens when you’re being shot at. How does it feel to be shot?
- Take a stance. No one is ambivalent about war. Not those in it or those out of it. You’re going to have an opinion on it – let it shine through.
- The Conventions of War. This is on the philosophical side of things. These are the written/unwritten rules for getting involved in war.
- Conventions and the Morality of War – George I. Mavrodes – it’s a good article you can read about it if you can gain access to it for free. It’s part of JSTOR and I know I’m not going to pay to read it.
- Morality of War Paper
That’s all that I have for you today!
Until next week.